Why Is My Royalty Check So Small?

This is it! You’ve had a book published, and your advance money is long gone. But your publisher has promised a royalty check and you know exactly when that check is supposed to arrive. You run to the mail box every day for two weeks until finally, Voilá! The check is here! You rip open the envelope to see a grand total of:



How can this be? So much for the big screen TV. Maybe the pizza place is running a Tuesday night special.

What happened?

The Advance

Some authors don’t understand that the advance payment is not a signing bonus. Instead, it is money the publisher is paying the author to live on while the book is being written. The publisher will be paid back this money once the book starts selling. They will take the advance money right off the top of your earnings. Depending on the size of your advance and how well your book sells, you may not receive any royalty payments for a long time. Maybe never. When a book sells enough copies to cover the cost of the advance, it means the book has earned out. This puts your agent in a great position to negotiate the next contract.

Reserves Against Returns

Reserves are sums of money that are held back against returns. For the purposes of this post, I’ll make up an example: let’s say Barnes and Noble orders 20,000 copies of your book. The publisher may assume they can only count on selling 5,000 of those no matter what. They will credit you those royalties against your advance, but they will hold back the money they will owe you if the other 15,000 copies sold. Then, as they learn how many copies of your book they have actually sold, they will pay you. Let’s say B&N returns 5,000 books. The publisher will pay you royalties on the remaining 10,000 books sold, for a total of royalties on 15,000 copies. They will never pay you royalties on the 5,000 books that didn’t sell. This keeps the publisher from paying you for books that don’t really sell, so they don’t have: 1.) ask for money back; or 2.) write the excess payment off as a loss. Such a loss may not seem like much to you as a lone author, but imagine having to write off the overpayments for hundreds of authors, year after year. Then no one gets published, because the company has gone out of business. Most publishers estimate that getting an accurate count of sales takes several royalty-reporting cycles. Once they learn the count, they settle up with their authors. (By the way, this is one advantage for publishers with e-books. Those rarely get returned.)

For an excellent post that goes into much more detail about reserves and returns, please see Steve Laube’s insights: “Many Happy Returns.”

Reduced Royalty Sales

You may see a large number of books sold, but wonder why the payment doesn’t seem to reflect that number. Take a look at where, how, and to what type of account the book sold. Chances are your contract says that the publisher will pay you lesser royalties for certain where they have to discount it heavily to make the sale. The spin racks you see in the grocery store for example are sold to a vendor (aka rack-jobber) at a very high discount. In those sales the author’s royalties are usually half of what they normally would receive. This is where your agent can help you understand the breakdown of your sales if your statement isn’t clear to you.


The best way to combat disappointment is not to count on receiving any royalty payments. This may sound terrible, but it really isn’t. Your agent can help you negotiate the advance you deserve, so the more established and popular you become as an author, the more of an advance you will receive. Your agent can also help you adjust your expectations according to the publisher you’re pursuing. Plan your financial life around your advances, not your royalties. That way, when royalties do come, they will be a bonus.

Your Turn:

Has this article helped you adjust your expectations about royalties? How?

19 Responses to Why Is My Royalty Check So Small?

  1. Avatar
    Adam Blumer December 6, 2012 at 6:58 am #

    Thank you! This is a very helpful article. My first experience with advances and royalties is puzzling, though. Maybe you can help me understand (because I still don’t get it). For my first novel, I received a modest advance. The book rolled out in March, and I received my first royalty check almost a year later. The check was several hundreds of dollars, which surprised me. That means the book earned out, correct? So then why, when I had a second book ready, did the same publisher decline it due to poor sales on my first book? I had understood that earning out put me in a great position for the second book. It apparently didn’t. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 6, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

      Adam, that’s a great question. Of course, I’m responding without knowing the identity of your publisher and other particulars that would allow me to give a much more informed answer — and I’m not asking you to share. But, based on what you say here, my educated guess is that:

      1.) The book you proposed doesn’t fit with the publisher’s direction for their line. Sometimes that can change during one meeting on a Tuesday. But they won’t necessarily tell you


      2.) While your book earned out, the actual unit sales weren’t what the publisher’s sales division projected, hence their reluctance to try again;


      3.) Some internal matter they will never reveal. (Difficult editing process. Missed deadlines. Marketing and Publicity ran into difficulties trying to market the book for whatever reason.)


      4.) New management or new editors are now in charge.

      I recommend trying to find out what you can with your current publisher. Sometimes the publisher will tell the agent the facts and leave it to us to try to tell the author the hard truth behind a decision. Meanwhile, the best advice I can give is to try other publishers.

  2. Avatar
    Terri Weldon December 6, 2012 at 7:44 am #

    Tamela – excellent post. Thanks for the explanations .

  3. Avatar
    Tari Faris December 6, 2012 at 8:48 am #

    Thanks- this makes a complicated concept very easy to understand.

  4. Avatar
    Meghan Carver December 6, 2012 at 8:59 am #

    Total panic here! $28? I can make more than that for a 1500 word short story that takes a fraction of the writing time as a novel. *breathing deeply* I know it’s an exaggeration, but it’s still sobering. I do thank you, Tamela, for bringing reality to our worlds of fiction. Keeps our feet on the ground while our heads are in the clouds.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 6, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

      Meghan, the hope is that your advance was large enough that you are still well ahead financially to write the novel!

  5. Avatar
    P. J. Casselman December 6, 2012 at 9:06 am #

    It reminds me of when my son asks for part of his allowance in advance and then says, “Hey, where’s my money?” at the end of the week.
    “I gave you some, remember?”
    “Oh yeah…” he says as he slumps back to his room.

    • Avatar
      Peter DeHaan December 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

      My kids never got an allowance. Problem solved.

  6. Avatar
    Christina Suzann Nelson December 6, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    I think I’d be really excited about the $28.52. That covers eight writing mornings at the coffee shop.

    Great post, Tamela!

    • Avatar
      Jeanne December 6, 2012 at 11:57 am #

      I love your perspective. 🙂

  7. Avatar
    Jeanne December 6, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    After talking with a couple of multi-published authors who got excited over seeming small royalties, I quickly learned that a royalty is a blessing rather than something to expect if/when my story gets published. So, does that mean it’s better to ask for a smaller advance so the book earns out sooner?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

      Jeanne, generally, it’s better to ask for a larger advance because then you will be assured a certain payment for your book.

  8. Avatar
    Jan Thompson December 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

    Tamela says: “Plan your financial life around your advances, not your royalties. That way, when royalties do come, they will be a bonus.”

    I think this is the best advice I’ve ever read regarding advances/royalties. Thank you. Great article too!

    • Avatar
      Jan Thompson December 6, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

      P.S. May I quote you on Twitter? If I change “your” to “yr” there’ll be exactly 140 characters:

      “Plan yr financial life around yr advances, not yr royalties. That way, when royalties do come, they will be a bonus.”-Tamela Hancock Murray


  9. Avatar
    Jan Thompson December 6, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    Thank you!

  10. Avatar
    Patricia Bradley December 11, 2012 at 8:21 am #

    Thanks for a great and understandable post on royalties!


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